You don’t want to mess with this one.
It’s early morning, and Averie Vockel is raring to roll at the gym. The day’s workout won’t be simple. After all, MMA training is anything but. Bag drills, strength training, weight lifting, sparring and more will all be on the agenda.
On the way out the door, Vockel stuffs a heavy blue workout bag to the rim – protein powder for the muscles, rags for the sweat, a mouth guard for the hard hits, a traditional gi and belt, and… a box of tampons.
Averie Vockel, a 19 year old student at the University of Utah, says it’s not uncommon for people to assume that most Mixed Martial Arts fighters are male. Still, even when the girls are recognized, it’s hardly for the right reasons. A quick google search of the term “female MMA fighters” turns out some discouraging article titles as first-page results: “The 28 Hottest Women’s MMA Fighters” or “Top 10 Beautiful MMA Female Fighters” are just a few near the top of the list. While it’s clear that many individuals are under the impression that beauty and brawn cannot coexist, but the qualities ought to be sexualized when they do, this girl spends plenty of time dispelling the notion.
Vockel got involved in MMA two years ago, while watching her brothers take fighting lessons at a local gym. She developed a hunch that this activity wasn’t just for the boys. While she admits that her start was nothing short of rocky, she slowly began to fall in love with MMA, continuing to take private lessons and train multiple times a week. “Once I started, I couldn’t stop,” she says. “I think that is when my confidence went up and I felt really in control of both my mind and body.”
If you catch her out and about, you’ll see her with her glossy, dark hair curled and cut above her shoulders, lips puckered from a smack of hot pink lip gloss, feet slid into a pair of high heels, and half-mast eyes lined with jet black, winged eyeliner. “I do have the stereotypical ‘girly-girl’ style,” she explains. But take a step into the ring, and Vockel will show you that what you see isn’t always what you get. “It is incredibly difficult to gain credibility as a woman fighter and ignore the sexualization that men place upon your abilities,” she explains. Still, Vockel remains entirely disinterested in altering her personal aesthetic to cater to anyone’s desires, and does her makeup because she has a passion for the art.
Vockel explains that aside from the killer workouts and supportive community, fighting provides her with a sense of security. While she hopes she’ll never have to use the techniques she spends so much time perfecting, she acknowledges that “you never know what could happen” in terms of being attacked or assaulted. She concludes that “the ability to defend myself is really appealing.”
Unfortunately, Vockel says that there are still very few female fighters in the community, and this makes it difficult to find cage fighting opponents. Facing sexism within the activity is a daily occurrence, and Vockel notes that she encounters plenty of “indirect actions that [she] would attribute to the bias against women in the sport.” Sexist comments range from the classic “I’ll go easy on you” to “you can quit if you want,” but Vockel assured me that quitting just isn’t in her plans.
In a TIME article published in November of 2013, former Olympian judo competitor Ronda Rousey mentioned that she was hardly phased by sexually derogatory comments about her fighting, and just wanted to be written about, mentioning that she wants “everyone to talk as much as possible.” Vockel doesn’t quite feel the same. She explains, “I think females have to work a lot harder to ‘prove’ their credibility in the sport to ‘the guys’ and that has definitely been my experience.”
But that’s not her only challenge. When she’s not training or competing, Averie is nothing short of busy. Whether she’s working, traveling to competitions with the University of Utah’s debate team, or studying to maintain her nearly perfect GPA, she always puts her best foot forward. Finding time to train and fight isn’t always easy, but Vockel explains that she’s willing to make it work.
Vockel explains that the fighting community is a long way off from eradicating the sexism that is insidious to the experiences of athletic women, but she hopes that her participation inspires young girls to pursue their passions – all of them, no matter how different. Regardless of the conditions, Vockel will still be hard at work, showing everyone what it means to fight like a girl.